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Cool Videos: Metabolomics

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Metabolomics video screenshot

Today’s feature in my Cool Video series is a scientific film noir from the University of Florida in Gainesville. Channeling Humphrey Bogart’s hard-boiled approach to detective work, the protagonist of this video is tracking down metabolites—molecules involved in biological mysteries with more twists and turns than “The Maltese Falcon.”

If you’d like a few more details before or after watching the video, here’s how the scientists themselves describe their project: “Inside our cells, chemical heroes, victims, and villains leave behind clues about our health. Meet Dr. Art Edison, one of many metabolomics PIs who are on the case. Their quest? To tail and fingerprint small molecules, called metabolites, which result from the chemical processes that fuel and sustain life. Metabolites can shed light on the state of health, nutrition, or disease in a living thing—whether human, animal, or plant. Funded by National Institutes of Health grant U24DK097209, the University of Florida Southeast Center for Integrated Metabolomics is sleuthing through these cellular secrets.”


Snapshots of Life: Wild Outcome from Knocking Out Mobility Proteins

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Spiky fibroblast cell

Credit: Praveen Suraneni and Rong Li, Stowers Institute for Medical Research

When biologists disabled proteins critical for cell movement, the result was dramatic. The membrane, normally a smooth surface enveloping the cell, erupted in spiky projections. This image, which is part of the Life: Magnified exhibit, resembles a supernova. Although it looks like it exploded, the cell pictured is still alive.

To create the image, Rong Li and Praveen Suraneni, NIH-funded cell biologists at the Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City, Missouri, disrupted two proteins essential to movement in fibroblasts—connective tissue cells that are also important for healing wounds. The first, called ARPC3, is a protein in the Arp2/3 complex. Without it, the cell moves more slowly and randomly [1]. Inhibiting the second protein gave this cell its spiky appearance. Called myosin IIA (green in the image), it’s like the cell’s muscle, and it’s critical for movement. The blue color is DNA; the red represents a protein called F-actin.


This SWELL Protein Keeps Cells in Shape

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Human cell

Caption: A human cell expressing both the SWELL1 (red) and green fluorescent protein. The red dots reveal the location of SWELL1 on the cell surface.
Credit: Zhaozhu Qiu, The Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, CA

Anyone who’s taken part in a water balloon fight knows what happens when you fill a balloon with too much water—it bursts. Now, consider that most of our cells are essentially water balloons: a thin membrane envelope containing a mixture that’s mostly water along with some salts, proteins, lipids, carbohydrates, and nucleic acids. Given that the average adult’s body is about 60% water, what keeps our cells from overfilling and exploding?

A few years ago, Zhaozhu Qiu, a postdoctoral fellow in Ardem Patapoutian’s lab at Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, CA, decided to dig into the molecular details of how cells are able to sense their volume and adjust their shapes accordingly. It’s long been known that, when cells are placed in low-salt solutions, water tends to flow into them, causing them to swell—sometimes to the verge of bursting. Scientists determined, about 30 years ago, that, when this occurs, channels in the cell membrane open and the cells release chloride and other molecules, such as amino acids: a process that drives out the excess water and returns cells to their normal size [1].


Proteins Park Free in this Helix

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An artist's rendition and an EM photograph showing the helical nature of the structure.

Caption: Protein-making factories in cells resemble a helical parking garage.
Credit: Cell, Terasaki et al.

I simply couldn’t resist sharing this image with you, even though the NIH didn’t fund the research. What you see in this picture is a structure called the endoplasmic reticulum (ER)—a protein-producing factory that is present in every single cell in your body. The little nubs on the surface of this membranous structure are ribosomes—they produce the proteins that are then modified in the ER.


The Beauty of Recycling

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This image looks like a fireworks display, with multiple streaks of purple turning into red, and ending with dots of green.

Novel proteasome regulation image by Sigi Benjamin-Hong, Strang Laboratory of Apoptosis and Cancer Biology.

All cells recycle. Here, we see actin filaments (red) direct unwanted (malformed, damaged, or toxic) proteins to proteasomes (green). In these barrel-shaped compartments, proteins are chopped up into their basic building blocks, called amino acids, and recycled to make new healthy proteins.


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